August 31, 2013

Voltaire’s Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet: A New Translation

Voltaire’s Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet:
A New Translation

Author: Voltaire
Translation and Introduction: Hanna Burton
Preface: Malise Ruthven
Price: $15.00
ISBN: 978-1-936117-81-9
Published: September 2013
Printed on acid-free paper.

Voltaire’s play Fanaticism, or Mahomet the Prophet was controversial in its own day, and has stirred up controversy in recent decades as attempts to mount stage productions have been met with protests. Originally intended as an oblique criticism of the Catholic Church and religious fanaticism in general (as Voltaire understood it), the play stands today as an entertaining melodrama marked by gleeful irreverance and historical imagination. This new prose translation into English by Hanna Burton brings the text to modern English-speaking audiences. The translator’s extensive introduction sheds light on the history of the work and its reception by Voltaire’s contemporaries.

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April 10, 2013

Daniel McGowan Forbidden From Publishing Articles Without Permission

The constitutional rights of people who are caught up in the criminal justice system are always an issue, but this is a little bit different, because the activities that got Daniel McGowan in trouble with the law were political activities in the first place. I recommend this article in the Village Voice to the ALA IF community: Daniel McGowan Forbidden From Publishing Articles Without Permission. In short, McGowan was serving the end of a prison term in a sort of halfway house (on an eco-terrorism charge), when he was detained and imprisoned again in an experimental new facility called a “Communications Management Unit,” after publishing an article critical of the authorities he has been dealing with. A Freedom of Information Act request uncovered memos that show he was indeed incarcerated to silence him, and he is pursuing a lawsuit that questions the constitutionality of these CMUs. I think this is worthy of attention from the Freedom to Read Foundation, don’t you?

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March 20, 2013

Whistleblowers, Intellectual Freedom, and Librarians

On February 28, 2013, Bradley Manning read a 35-page statement at a courthouse in Fort Meade, in which he detailed how and why he released certain information to the public. The redacted transcript reveals several intellectual freedom issues that have been central to some recent discussions at American Library Association meetings. Among these issues are recurring concerns about the national security vs. the public’s right to know debate and the over-classification of government information, both of which reinforce government secrecy.

When Manning discussed the release of diplomatic cables, he stated “the world would be a better place if states would avoid making secret pacts and deals with and against each other. I thought these cables were a prime example of a need for more open diplomacy.” Even the Obama Administration agrees that a more open government would be beneficial and joined the Open Government Partnership with several other countries devoted to making governments more transparent and accountable. In theUnited States’ Open Government Partnership action plan whistleblower protection and declassification of government records are listed as working goals, among many others. In addition, the action plan supports “accountability, which can improve performance” and refers to the famous quote from Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” Yet, Bradley Manning’s court case, along with several other instances of whistleblower persecution, point toward an opposite reality. In fact, the Obama Administration is taking the unprecedented path of charging Manning with “aiding the enemy”, a crime punishable by death and a charge for which Manning has pleaded not guilty.

In Yochai Benkler’s post in New Republic titled “The Dangerous Logic of the Bradley Manning Case,” he explains that “If Bradley Manning is convicted of aiding the enemy, the introduction of a capital offense into the mix would dramatically elevate the threat to whistleblowers. The consequences for the ability of the press to perform its critical watchdog function in the national security arena will be dire. “Perhaps Manning’s leaks of diplomatic cables along with other information on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars has been too much “sunlight”, or rather, not the kind of sunlight the Open Government program envisioned. This is where we see a great clash between the Public’s right to know and concerns for national security.

Unfortunately, invoking “national security” has often been used to limit intellectual freedom, including press freedom as outlined under the First Amendment, resulting in fleeting protections for whistleblowers who reveal injustices and abuses within organizations. A prime example is the decision by The New York Times not to publish a story in 2003 on the sabotage of Iran’s nuclear program by the C.I.A. after government officials informed the paper it would endanger “national security.” In addition, President Obama’s 2012 directive titled “Protecting Whistleblowers with Access to Classified Information” does not extend protection to whistleblowers that disclose information outside of institutional channels for example, to the press or the public. Benkler asserts that “freedom of the press is anchored in our constitution because it reflects our fundamental belief that no institution can be its own watchdog,” for even though internal accountability systems are in place, secrecy “can be-and often is-used to cover up failure, avarice, or actions that simply will not survive that best of disinfectants, sunlight.” To ensure effective accountability that eliminates injustices and corruption within our government, we need better transparency and a media devoted to its critical watchdog role.

The International Federation of Library Associations, of which the American Library Association is a member, published the “IFLA Manifesto on Transparency, Good Governance and Freedom from Corruption” which offers some inspiration for librarians who are concerned with issues of national security, press freedom and the over classification of government information. It states that: “Corruption succeeds most under conditions of secrecy and general ignorance” and that since libraries in essence contribute to “good governance by enlarging the knowledge of citizens and enriching their discussion and debates” they should extend their work to be active in the “struggle against corruption.”

Moreover, several of the core values of our profession, as expressed by the American Library Association directly relate to the importance of whistleblowers. First, the core value in support of democracy: “A democracy presupposes an informed citizenry.” Likewise, the value of social responsibility, which includes “ameliorating or solving the critical problems of society; support for efforts to help inform and educate the people of the United States on these problems and to encourage them to examine the many views on and the facts regarding each problem.” Without a doubt, government transparency is a critical problem in our society, and has been a continuous balancing act since the inception of our constitutional republic. As Sunshine Week comes to a close, we are reminded to reflect on these issues and the progress we have yet to make.

As of now, the Obama Administration has denied FOIA requests more than any time in the Administration’s history due to national security and internal deliberations. The Espionage Act, enacted in 1917, has resurfaced in the persecution of whistleblowers who inform the public of government crime. National Security Letters continue to be used as a way to infringe on individual privacies, although a federal judge just recently ruled the letters unconstitutional and a violation of the First Amendment. This varied landscape of political control over information should be explored by information professionals in order to be better informed of the various perspectives and events that have brought it about. As librarians, professionals dedicated to equitable access to information, we should be acutely aware of and decidedly outspoken about the current threat to the vital role that whistleblowers play in times of heightened government secrecy, that of alerting us to troubling, unethical, immoral, and/or criminal acts in our name.

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December 6, 2012

All That Is Banned is Desired

This was Session 4 on Day 1 of the conference ‘All that is banned is desired’ which was held in Oslo, Norway, in October 2012.

Larissa Sansour, Visual Artist (Palestine/UK)
Nadia Plesner, Visual Artist (Denmark)
Fredrik Gertten, Film Director (Sweden)

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October 1, 2012

Banned Books Week – Yeai Us? Not So Fast. Sandy Berman on Self-Censorship

Banned Books Week sometimes feels like National Library Week, in the sense that it is something that lets librarians shine a celebratory spotlight on our profession, since we are all about the freedom to read, always opposing small-minded censors. Feeling good about the heroic narrative at the core of our profession is a perk of the job.

And so is feeling good about the heroism of that symbol of librarianship the way we want it to be: Sanford Berman, activist librarian par excellence. But besides being a crusader for progressive values in the profession, Sandy Berman has also encouraged an attitude of self-criticism as a professional value. He has consistently found ways in which practicing librarians can be truer to our core values. I view that as part of the tradition of progressive librarianship that he helped found.

So, given all of that, I am happy to link to this article of his on self-censorship in libraries: “Inside Censorship.” It has appeared in different versions over the years in different places, because it is statement that it has always been important to him to reiterate. I recommend it as something to read about and think about during Banned Books Week, to counter some of the feel-goodism about librarians’ roles in combatting censorship that tends to dominate this time of year….

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September 18, 2012

Political Repression and Illegal Books in Portland

Just in time for Banned Books Week, here is a bit of news that I hope comes to your attention if you are concerned with civil liberties and the freedom to read.

A couple of young people in Portland, fresh faced college students who like to say that they’re anarchists, have been arrested as part of an investigation of vandalism of a courthouse in Seattle. It doesn’t seem that they were involved, but the FBI regards anarchists not as a tribe of harmless bohemian-ish young intellectuals with a vague, semi-coherent political philosophy and taste for history, but as “criminals seeking an ideology to justify their actions” who are “not dedicated to a particular issue” (according to the FBI’s Domestic Terrorism Guide). The FBI’s search warrant that ordered the raid on their house specified that they were looking for “anarchist literature”…. which seems to imply that books containing anarchist political philosophy are considered illegal by the FBI.

In my opinion, this is a matter that deserves our attention during Banned Books Week. Not to minimize the importance of protecting the rights of teens to read novels that have mature themes that some members of their communities believe they are not ready to be exposed to yet (or the importance of questions about what teens are in fact ready to be reading), but this seems to be a case of political repression based in part on what books these young idealists may own. Raising further red flags about civil liberties questions is the fact that their subpoenas have been to appear before secret grand juries where the proceedings can’t be monitored by the press.

I read about this issue at Sound and Noise.

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August 5, 2012

Book Banning in Missouri

Journalism students at the University of Missouri have published a very important report on book censorship in Missouri. It makes for chilling, but necessary reading. Take a look here.

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June 1, 2012

Censorship at Canadian Library Association Conference – Librarians Expelled by Security Guards for Leafletting

Take note of this outrageous situation at the Canadian Library Association conference yesterday. Librarians opposing cuts to the Canadian National Library and Archives were ejected from the conference by force for passing out leaflets. The Executive Director of CLA claimed that the library conference was “not the right venue” for such activism. Read all about it on the blog of the unionized librarians of the University of Ottawa.

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May 25, 2012

Former NYPL employees silenced by non-disparagement agreement

Robin Pogrebin has an article in the New York Times from Wednesday, titled, Former Employees Feel Silenced on Library Project. They don’t just “feel” silenced though. First two paragraphs:

The New York Public Library’s plan to turn part of its flagship Fifth Avenue research center into a lending library has unleashed a torrent of commentary, with scholars, writers, artists and students signing a petition and writing articles, many of them critical. But one highly informed contingent has been notably silent: former curators, department heads and librarians.

That’s not because this group has no opinions. On the contrary, some former employees say they are eager to participate in the debate over the $300 million proposal, known as the Central Library Plan. But they say they can’t because they signed a nondisparagement agreement when they left, promising not to criticize the library in exchange for the additional pay known as severance.

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April 14, 2012

Censorship through travel restriction (two links)

Two links to share about what may be a growing trend – travel restrictions as a way to stifle political speech.

A column in Salon by Glen Greenwald a few days ago talks about the Department of Homeland Security’s detention of filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras at the U.S. border. They detained her and took possession of her camera and laptop, downloading all of the files on both. Pretty scary. Funny how we have become numb to this kind of thing. Greenwald’s column also talks about other, similar instances.

An article in Haaretz today reports that several airlines have canceled the flights of about 60% of the activists who have been planning to fly in for a protest against the building of new settlements in Palestinian territory. The article begins:

Over 60 percent of the 1,500 pro-Palestinian activists due to arrive in Israel on Sunday to take part in a fly-in protest have received notifications from airlines that their flights have been canceled, the spokesman for the “Welcome to Palestine” protest told Haaretz on Saturday.

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March 27, 2012

New online resource: Alternatives in Print

Alternatives in Print is a directory of book publishers and critical periodicals, consisting of the former print resources, Annotations and Alternative Publishers of Books in North America (APBNA). Library Juice Press published the 6th edition of APBNA, and the Alternative Press Center has been the publisher of Annotations, the periodicals directory. We have been working together on an online version of these two reference books for some time, and finally have it completed. It will be updated continuously by the original compilers of the directory information.

The website lets you search the directory by title, subject, or keyword, limiting to either periodicals or publishers (or both in the advanced search). The “front matter” has introductory essays about the alternative press. Library Juice Press is very happy to provide Alternatives in Print as a free online resource.

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February 23, 2012

Obituary: Barney Rossett, groundbreaking publisher at Grove Press, lived to 89

Excerpted from Barney Rosset’s obituary:

By Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

February 23, 2012
Barney Rosset, the renegade founder of Grove Press who fought groundbreaking legal battles against censorship and introduced American readers to such provocative writers as Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco and Jean Genet, died Tuesday in New York City. He was 89.

His daughter, Tansey Rosset, said he died after undergoing surgery to replace a heart valve.

In 1951 Rosset bought tiny Grove Press, named after the Greenwich Village street where it was located, and turned it into one of the most influential publishing companies of its time. It championed the writings of a political and literary vanguard that included Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Tom Stoppard, Octavio Paz, Marguerite Duras, Che Guevara and Malcolm X.

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November 30, 2011

Occupying the First Amendment

The recent assaults by the police on various Occupy movement encampments highlight the tenuousness of our right to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances. Certainly, there is good reason for municipal ordinances against permanently occupying public spaces. Under many circumstances, this would amount to appropriating public spaces for private use, but the Occupy encampments do not fit these circumstances. The Occupy encampments are of a kind with the recent and ongoing occupations of Tahrir Square in Cairo, the 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and the occupation of the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk in 1980. All of them are or were peaceful efforts to confront a nation’s political power structure and to rally fellow citizens to oppose corruption, abuse, and undemocratic institutions. President Obama has condemned state violence against Egyptian protesters, but it is no surprise that he and his administration remain silent when the right to assemble for political expression is denied in U.S. cities. The impulse to silence dissent (or to allow dissidents to be silenced) is strong among those in power.

Apologists for police repression in the U.S. point out that the crackdowns in Egypt, China, and Poland were far more brutal and of a greater scale than what is happening in our cities; however, the violation of our first amendment rights is no less a violation simply because less violent tactics are employed against smaller demonstrations. The ostensible reason for destroying the encampments is to protect public health, but it would be quite easy to work with the protesters to address any issues related to sanitation and public health, while respecting the right to assemble and petition the government for redress.

Beyond the right of the people to peaceably assemble, the freedoms of speech and of the press are also under attack. This has been made evident by the reported arrests of and assaults on journalists and the restrictions placed on them by police at encampments. It also has been dramatized recently by the confiscation and destruction of the People’s Library during an attack on the Occupy Wall Street encampment in Zuccotti Park. The People’s Library contained over 6,000 volumes. Its destruction by the police illustrates the disregard that the New York Police Department and Mayor Bloomberg have for political expression. City officials are more concerned with fostering a certain image of the city and protecting Wall Street than they are with our constitutional rights. They are using City ordinances to crush political dissent.

Some might attempt to excuse the destruction of the People’s Library on the grounds that much of the collection was not unique and that it might have appeared to the police to be an ad hoc, ephemeral assortment of books and not a “real” library. It might have been seen as one of many things to be cleared from the park. However, American Library Association President Molly Raphael correctly observed that “the very existence of the People’s Library demonstrates that libraries are an organic part of all communities. Libraries serve the needs of community members and preserve the record of community history. In the case of the People’s Library, this included irreplaceable records and material related to the occupation movement and the temporary community that it represented.” She went on to express support for the librarians and volunteers working to reestablish the People’s Library. Roughly discarding tents and sleeping bags is one thing, but destroying the media of public discourse is a direct assault on democracy.

It is clear that the real intent of these police actions is simply to suppress political dissent. This serves no good purpose. Indeed, allowing the protest to continue would be of great benefit to everyone – both those who are sympathetic to the protest and to those who are not. It would allow the public and politicians to understand the depth of support for the Occupy movement. Without police interference, the size and longevity of the protest would be proportional to the indignation felt by the protesters and the popularity of their cause. If the grievances are trivial, the protest would soon evaporate. If they are serious, the growth and staying power of the encampments would make this known to everyone. Destroying the encampments merely obscures the issue, while it makes a mockery of our most prized civil liberties. It has, however, demonstrated the narrow boundaries of acceptable political dissent in the U.S. We owe great thanks to the occupiers for the sacrifices they are making to push back those boundaries and enlarge our freedom.

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September 24, 2011

Repressive Tolerance (link to essay by Marcuse) and a comment on information literacy

For those who have noted, along with Jon Stewart, that in the Fox News era the media treats facts in a relative way, as a matter of political taste… This phenomenon was first described by Frankfurt School critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, in his 1965 essay, “Repressive Tolerance.” According to Marcuse, it is a problem of the media system itself. Whatever ideas it communicates, as radical as they may be, become an entertainment commodity that audiences consume. It is a pessimistic standpoint, but it does clarify the fact that there is a way to stand outside the mass media system.

I would like to use this point of Marcuse to challenge librarians to reflect on their own understanding of information literacy and how we teach about it to our students. Are you teaching students to be outside of the world of media messages as thinkers and doers? I think that critical thinking, which is the heart of information literacy, is not possible without that ability.

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September 20, 2011

What Google permits and does not permit in Google eBooks

Given Google’s dominance in search and the scope and integration of their Google Books product (hate to use the word product, but libraries have been converted into product here), we should be especially aware of their policies regarding what they will permit and what they will not permit in terms of inclusion in their full text digital library of eBooks for sale.

Call it censorship or call it collection maintenance criteria, but Google has a a set of Content Policies governing what kinds of materials publishers are allowed to include in the Google eBooks database. I have no criticism of these policies or the fact that they have them. Given the complexity of speech law and their legitimate interest in avoiding legal liability, they have no option but to have these policies in effect and to design them according to their lawyers’ most diligent work.

What I would argue is that because Google’s dominance of the market in certain respects gives them a degree of monopoly power, these policies are to an extent public policies and should be discussed in public fora, under the assumption that Google should be held, to a degree, publicly accountable for these policies, and conversely, that if the public has a role in shaping these policies, that the public itself also share a degree of accountability for their consequences.

The categories of Google’s Content Policies are: spam and malware; violent, threatening or disgusting materials; hate speech; sexually explicit material; child safety; Personal and Confidential information; Illegal activities; and Copyright. Note that these are categories for which they have designed some succinctly stated rules. Users can “Report Abuse” to cause an eBook to be reviewed according to these policies, and then somewhere in the Google offices they make a decision regarding the item according to their interpretation of the policies.

Vendors – bookstores, etc. – have always had policies regarding what they will stock and present to customers, but Google’s status as a total search utility with an overwhelmingly dominant position makes the situation different, to the extent that I think we need to look at these policies in light of intellectual freedom concerns.

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